If you’ve spent this past weekend devouring the entire new season of Orange is the New Black (I’m only about four episodes in myself), and are eager to see other awesome representations of women who take to the criminal lifestyle, here are some good places to start. To qualify, the woman (or women) in question had to very much be instigators, not sidekicks or equal partners.
8.) Safe in Hell (dir. William Wellman, 1931)
Boasting a plot that could easily provide the backstory for a character on OITNB, Wellman’s great Pre-Code entry features Dorothy Mackaill as a prostitute accused of killing the man responsible for her downfall, who then stows away on a ship to the Caribbean, from which she cannot be extradited. She lands in a hotel stacked with people in similar situations, most of them men. In fact, she’s the only white woman in sight, surrounded by very dangerous men. It all wraps up a little questionably, morally speaking, but then, these are questionable circumstances, and it certainly maintains a level of seediness that makes it one of the most deeply uncomfortable films I’ve ever seen.
7.) Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2013)
“Every time I try to fly, I fall; without these wings, I feel so small.” What an odd, haunting movie this is. Over a year removed from its release, finally having escaped all the think pieces, only now does this movie seem as absolutely insane as it so clearly always was. Four college students rob a diner to finance their spring break in Florida. Some horrible stuff happens. One leaves. Three commit a series of crimes alongside a drug dealer named Alien, who, despite being a more powerful person, is very much at their beck and call. There are neon swimsuits, a piano, an army’s worth of guns, and shorts in every color.
6.) Hard Candy (David Slade, 2005)
Flipping the very notion of “sexual predator” on its ear, Hard Candy is about a 14-year-old girl (Ellen Page) and a 32-year-old man (Patrick Wilson) who go to the latter’s house with the expectation of sex. And then everything gets flipped around. There’s a revenge element, certainly, but the thoroughness and focus of the young girl’s scheme makes her almost otherworldly, perhaps even psychotic, as though an element of the man’s guilt brought her to life with the sole intention of ruining his. Slade trades on fairy tale imagery, and indeed the film his the sort of remove from everyday life (while taking as its launching point an all-too-regular occurrence) that would make any idea of punishing the girl impossible. She will simply float from monster to monster, destroying each in her path.
5.) Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950)
Bart (John Dall) loves guns. He doesn’t mean anybody any harm, but he has a psychological attachment that requires them near his person, and practices shooting at every opportunity. When he beats a carnival sharpshooter (Peggy Cummins) in a shooting contest, she twists their mutual attraction into a life of crime, urging them toward a high that guns alone can’t achieve. I wouldn’t say, and I don’t think the film is saying, that guns makes someone evil, but the film explores the increasingly-relevant concern that there is something incredibly uncomfortable about the way guns are festishized and prized.
4.) Forty Guns (Samuel Fuller, 1957)
Did you ever watch Deadwood and think to yourself, “man, this would be a lot cooler if Al Swearengen were a woman. And maybe there could be some singing?” Well, if so, I’ve go terrific news for you. Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) runs her sleepy Arizona town with an iron fist, except where her family is concerned – brother Brockie is free to trash the place as much as he sees fit. The true law must be bent a bit when one wishes to establish one’s own.
3.) Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (Russ Meyer, 1965)
If you’ve never had the pleasure before, let me clue you in on something about Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! – yes it’s sleazy and over-the-top and violent and has more than a few qualities one might associate with “camp.” But it’s also really, really good, sharply-directed, fun and funny as they come, and yeah, pretty damn sexy. Three go-go dancers kill a man and kidnap his girlfriend, then plan a robbery. What could go wrong? For the audience, nothing. Nothing at all.
2.) Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, 2007)
Many of the women on this list are threatening because they’re confident. They know everything they need to know. They have the ability to destroy you. And they’ve thought through each step very carefully. Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) is a different story altogether. She’s scared; terrified, even. Scared of losing her job, of having her corruption exposed, even of simply not fitting into the man’s world in which she works. As a result, she’s capable of just about anything. She could kill a person just on the off chance her world would be disrupted. It’s not that she has no sense of moral order, but that any such sense is secondary to her preservation instinct. Swinton, who won an Oscar for this performance, is magnificent, a fury of twitches in her private moments that reveal how jittery she undoubtedly is even when she seems confident.
1.) Domino (Tony Scott, 2005)
Tony Scott may be best known for the men with whom he has worked (Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Gene Hackman, and James Gandolfini, to name a few), but his finest film is stacked with tremendous female performances, first and foremost Keira Knightley in the titular role. Never more dynamic, electrifying, or fascinating than she is here, her rendition of Domino Harvey (who was an actual person, but the film’s “based on a true story…sort of” disclaimer is worth noting) is a woman with tight moral convictions whose encounters with the sin of the world encourage her to explore more questionable behaviors to put things back on track. She quickly becomes embroiled in a scheme to get $300,000 quickly for a woman (Mo’Nique, in the role for which she should have won the Oscar) whose granddaughter needs urgent medical care. The woman in question runs a fake ID racket. Naturally, being associated with a band of bounty hunters and forgers, the plan quickly turns to robbery. Or at least mass fraud. Domino is an insane motion picture experience, far and away Scott’s most experimental and audacious, but this interior sense of right and wrong keeps the picture grounded, unflinching from the world as it truly is for many people without writing them off as beyond saving.